Forum> Archive 1 Archive 2 Archive 3 <
The Forum is now closed for new questions
Here are the latest Q & A’s. Explore the Archive for many more.
Q . I know that in the interview section of your book ROA, you mention that the Western practitioner is no different in 'make up' than the Eastern. However, I wonder whether there are any challenges that we as westerners face that are particular to our modern day world.
A. Too many choices. This I see as a huge challenge for us in the modern world to work with. Historically, those aspiring to practising the Way had for the most part few chances to raise their own personal horizons in the ways that we can through, for example, life-transforming education or wealth accumulation. They would have been familiar with a more simple grounded life and, crucially, not have had the option of chopping and changing traditions when things became difficult for them. They would have accepted what was probably the only tradition that existed in their country, so denying mara the opportunity he or she now has in the West of tempting them to avoid their difficulties by hopping around from one to another of the many Buddhist schools or traditions on offer. So surely life would have been so much simpler than ours today, and probably involved just one outstanding desire – spiritual fulfilment?
Back in those times it would surely have been the norm to accept that simplicity, and be grateful they had a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and food in their stomachs. With these basics gratefully in place, they could give themselves to the practice whilst accepting their conditions, and not have to deal with the sort of restlessness for a ‘better’ material life that plagues most of us today. Simplicity and acceptance are two of the most crucial virtues needed for spiritual transformation, yet we in the West have not much of either.
Q . Firstly, thank you for posting the downloads on your website. To say I have benefited from them is an understatement. They have helped return me to Buddhism and with a fresh perspective that I expect will be very beneficial. As to my question: There appears to be a deep philosophical conflict between much counselling therapy in the West and Buddhism in regard to the approach to the self. Are there circumstances where you think therapy can be helpful along the way, perhaps for people with strong and unrealistically negative views of themselves?
A. It is true that there is something of a conflict between the different views of the spiritual path and forms of therapy. I think if we first of all understood what constitutes the ‘spiritual path’, then this misunderstanding would be less likely to arise.
From my understanding of the spiritual path, I would define it as a path of complete transformation of the whole of our mental and emotional make up – with this entire transformation taking place in direct relation to the sense of a self. For it is that sense of a self that appropriates and possesses our mental and emotional being in the first place and it is from this that we create and enter the world of samsara and unfulfilment. Buddhist practices work with the entirety of our mental and emotional state, which includes our acknowledgement that there is this sense of a self and that it carries great influence. The major characteristic of the spiritual path is that it does not chop any of these parts into pieces, but rather embraces the whole, and it constitutes a journey that could be described as complete surrender through wisdom.
Dharma practice is a sort of ‘polishing’ process whereby, through ever-deepening insight, the influence of that sense of a self is polished away, until it is thoroughly cleansed and seen through. When that seeing reaches its final maturity, the delusion of self, for a short period of time at least, shows itself to have been from the very beginning nothing more than a figment of our own imagination. It is at this moment that awakening takes place, and the astonishing nature of reality is revealed.
Whilst many therapies these days may refer to the whole of ourselves as a sort of reference point, often using established Buddhist concepts, they nevertheless have to leave that wholeness of being to target specific aspects of the emotional personality. After all, it is the emotional personality imbalances that have brought the patient to the therapist in the first place, isn’t it? There then takes place a clear and very different approach to that of Dharma practice, a one-to-one interaction with the patient specifically targeting the personality problem, and finding ways to change it.
Therapy has a significant role to play among those with imbalances and anxieties so great that they cannot practise the Dharma in a correct way. If you feel you are outside the parameters necessary to be able to practise, then seek out a therapist. Hopefully, one day after treatment you will be able to step back into the fold and practise the Dharma again.
Personally, I think very few of us Buddhists need therapy. What we do need is to learn how to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in a proper way and specifically take a teacher with the knowledge to encourage us to create a physical and emotional framework that will help support those perceived difficulties, and also, crucially, teach us how to work with these difficulties for ourselves. Through time, and a willingness to bear with the emotional forces you will inevitably experience, transformation will take place, and you will come through to be emotionally stronger and wiser. Strong negative self-views are common in us westerners, but true Dharma practice will work on that self-view burden; and should you need still further help, there are many meditation practices inherent in Buddhism to help support you.
Q . Often in my day-to-day life I have doubts that my practice is very effective. Though I do my best to practise, I worry that my city life is just too busy. However, each time I go on retreat I sense a deeper awareness of my body and a deeper connection with myself than the last retreat. It is then that I realise that something effective must be happening in my normal day-to-day life between retreats, and perhaps I need not be as concerned as I am. Is this sensible?
A. Because genuine change for the most part is unquantifiable be very careful about looking for it. I accept it is something that most of do and is natural to want to see change taking place. After all, this is why we practice, isn’t it? But before you start looking for change it’s a good idea to first get some notion how the natural unfolding of change actually takes place.
From my experience I’d say that at least 90% of change is taking place on a sub-conscious level, and therefore pretty much beyond our ability to grasp it. The remaining 10% is left over for the conscious mind to see. And even the bit we think we see could be questionable especially if we want change to be taking place so much, we may well be seeing change when its not really there. Change is mysterious, and should really not be your concern. Change takes place quite naturally as our habitual karmic conditioning loses its power through practice. The energy that helps keep us trapped in our familiar habits reverts back into its original nature, and with that reversal a shift takes place in our basic makeup. It is because this shift takes place beyond our normal awareness, we don’t know it.
If your practice is true then change will be taking place. Have faith that change is happening and don’t go looking for it. If you do the chances are you will not see it, for change is subtle and spread over long periods of time. If you think you should be seeing change you will inevitably be disappointed when you don’t and disillusionment will set in and your faith in the practice will falter. You don’t make change, so mind your own business and stick to the practice!
Q . I've heard Buddhists that talk about art (in the larger sense of music, paintings, literature etc.) being useful to cultivate positive states of mind. Some of these people draw distinctions between what they see as "fine" (usually classical music, older pictorial art etc.) and what they see as "gross" (eg. rock / pop music or TV). In their opinion the latter can be dismissed as trash.
I see this as a value judgment and rather dualistic. In my experience inspiration can come from all sorts of sources, and it's very difficult to predict how this is going to work or impose a hierarchy on it. I myself get a lot from films and rock and jazz music.
A. I agree totally with your own assessment. I think the view you describe whiffs of class, and is very unhelpful to those that haven't had a privileged education and conditioning in the so-called 'finer arts'. Yes, we can educate ourselves and aspire to lift our horizons in many ways, that could even open avenues to the unconditioned on life’s journey. But I have come across working-class Dharma practitioners who have been instructed by others in the importance of having this type of ‘higher’ knowledge, and have tried to educate themselves. They become convinced that unless they begin to appreciate the arts they will somehow fall short of the necessary qualities needed for spiritual transformation. Among those who find it just doesn’t work for them, who can’t absorb this new conditioning, some become doubtful of their ability to practise the Dharma. They can become disillusioned, and very negative towards themselves. Conversely, I have met practitioners who are well versed in the arts who have the notion that because they have this feeling for the finer things they are somehow a step (or two) further forward on the path.
Fortunately, the Dharma couldn't care less about the values of our class or culture system, but rather – because the Dharma is ever present, whole and complete, in all situations – is fair to everyone within his or her own frame of reference. Personally, I've always been grateful for the time spent on the terraces of my hometown football club. Watching my joy and pain (and believe me there has been a lot of pain!), and mixed emotional reactions to grown men chasing a piece of plastic around a field on a freezing cold winter’s day, has been a rich source of insight and inspiration over many years.